Battle Creek

Waxing nostalgia for Battle Creek candlemaker

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

The smell of success for Kellee VanValkenburg mimics the scents of fruity breakfast cereals manufactured by the Kellogg and Post companies — lemon, lavender, and sage are key ingredients in the candles she makes and sells through her Cereal City Candle Company.
Although she had always wanted to start her own business, she says that wasn’t her focus when she purchased a candle-making kit to make candles for family members who weren’t able to come home during the height of the pandemic.
“I didn’t want to go shopping, In the job I had at the time with the VA, I still had to come in every day,” says VanValkenburg, a United States Navy Veteran who is a Program Analyst with the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Battle Creek. “I didn’t want to go into stores and go shopping for gifts or order everything from Amazon.”
As a frequent buyer of candles for her own enjoyment, she settled on the idea of homemade candles as gifts for those family members.
“I came across this fragrance oil that smells like a popular fruity cereal made in Battle Creek. I have some family members who live outside of Battle Creek and this just gives them a taste of home,” she says. “I gave one to my daughter who lives out of town and to family members in Arizona.”
Not long after this initial foray into candlemaking, VanValkenburg says other people started expressing an interest in her candles and she realized she had an untapped market that was worth exploring and the idea of becoming a business owner seemed doable.
“I asked myself why I was putting it off and why not now,” she says.
In early 2022 she participated in a 10-week program offered through Northern Initiatives for those like her who were interested in starting their own businesses.
Kellee VanValkenburg is the creator and owner of Cereal City Candles.“I saw an ad for Northern Initiatives. I’d never taken any business courses or thought seriously about owning my own business. When I saw this ad, it was like well, that could really help me,” she says. “It was a really good program. I couldn’t recommend it enough for people who have an idea and don’t know how to get started.”
In May 2022, she got her Limited Liability Company (LLC) designation and her dining room table became the base of operations for Cereal City Candles. She says she and her husband are renovating a room in their house to become a studio and office for the business.
Although VanValkenburg isn’t planning to retire for another 10 years, she says she would like to get her company to the point where her husband could retire early from his factory job and manage it full-time.
“I’m not looking for this to be a full-time income right now, but I do want to grow it and want to know that my husband could take on that role if it comes to that,” she says.
Her production schedule revolves around her day job. She makes candles after getting home from work and on the weekends.
Kellee VanValkenburg stirs melted wax after the scent is added.The process, she says, is time-consuming because the wax must be at a certain temperature to melt, and creating the scents is not a quick process. She’ll have an idea for a scent and will combine them to test by dipping each end of a Q-tip with a different scent and letting them sit in a jar to blend. A test jar is made for every scent and is left to sit for at least two hours. 
“You have to have the right size wick for the fragrance oil, the jar, and the wax,” VanValkenburg says. “I use soy wax which is a natural wax, and that wax needs to be cured. It needs to all be set together to allow the wax to get hard. It takes one week to cure after the scent is in the jar before I light and test the candle.”
She uses about six scents to start with and makes 12 candles per scent. So far, she has worked with 15 different scents. The candles are in eight-ounce jars and burn between 32 and 42 hours.
“I keep a case on hand at all times and if I go to a show and sell six, I’ll go home and make six to replace them,” VanValkenburg says. “Breakfast in Battle Creek which is based on a fruity cereal is the most popular seller. I keep at least two cases of those on hand at all times. The fragrance is based on Fruit Loops which is made by Kellogg’s, but my dad worked at Post so I try to be careful about naming the company.”
Kellee VanValkenburg adds scent to melted soy wax in a container.Another of her more popular candles is one called North Country Trail which contains notes of eucalyptus, peppermint, and bergamot musk. Among her newest candles is one called Revive and Renew which includes notes of lemongrass, sage, and lavender.

In addition to the scents she creates, VanValkenburg also makes custom scents by request. She recently created one for S.A.F.E. Place which is selling the candles called “Survivor” as part of their fundraising efforts. This particular candle which is exclusive to S.A.F.E. Place has notes of citrus, fruit, and greenery in it.
Hadlee Andrews-Robinson, Development Coordinator for S.A.F.E. Place, says she met VanValkenburg at a Breaking Bred winter bazaar which was held in January at Kellogg Arena. The two worked out an idea to sell the candles on consignment with a portion of each sale going to S.A.F.E. Place. The candles will be available for purchase during a Breaking Bred Bazaar on June 25 in downtown Battle Creek. They are priced at $15 each which is what Vanvalkenburg normally charges.
“She worked with us to create a scent,” Andrews-Robinson says. “We don’t have a goal. Right now we have 36 and we hope they go quickly. We’ve never tried this before. It’s a very beautiful way for us to continue to raise awareness of what we do. It’s very loving because candles are so cozy and warm. Our hope is that this collaboration with Kellee will be ongoing for the foreseeable future.”
VanValkenburg says she agreed to work with S.A.F.E. Place because it was an opportunity to give back to the community.

Kellee VanValkenburg sold candles like those in this box at the recent National Cereal Festival in downtown Battle Creek.“I was a single mom for many, many years, but I always had safe relationships,” she says, adding that she knows there are women and men who aren’t as fortunate. “This creates good karma and good vibes for the business.”
Those vibes extend to those who buy the candles via her Facebook site or at events.
“I think the scents can create an ambiance. Candles are uplifting and can also help people to relax. They also provide light and we could all use more light,” she says.

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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.